I knew she was exhausted and over-stimulated from seven hours at preschool; it was revealing itself through her stubborn refusal to do anything I asked, from giving me the book she was reading before getting in the tub, to taking her clothes off before getting in the tub, to getting in the tub at all. I stored the knowledge that she was physically and emotionally spent – unable to exhibit any kind of self-control – in the back of my head as I tried to remain calm. I knew this was different than typical toddler shit. She had reached her limit.
She chucked the book at me. She kicked water at me. I plunked her in the water and attempted to massage her head through spasms of rage during which she screamed that I was hurting her. I tried to relax her by raking my fingernails through her scalp. I took soap and rubbed it in circles on her back. It may sound like I was nurturing her tantrum but given her exhaustion I felt the only way to stop her fits of anger was to let it play out while showing her it would not affect me.
Nothing good would have come from any other reaction. I had a wearing day as well and there’s no rationalizing with a three-year-old as she unravels from the tension of being a three-year-old all day. I also know myself well enough to know that when I give myself permission to get pissed I unleash a volatile parent who achieves submission through fear and screaming. The release of that stress feels, for a moment, liberating. A desperate relief, like the consequential reprieve after throwing up. But then her tears are cold and wet on my conscious and the guilt overcomes me like a second wave of nausea.
I told her she wouldn’t have the book until she calmed down. It made her outbursts worse. I told her if she didn’t make better choices I’d have to make choices for her. She continued to explode like a rabid dog being pinned to the ground. She kicked into my gut as I tried to pull her underwear up, as I tried to put her legs into her sleeper. For the first time during the ordeal I felt my control deteriorate. I had the urge to throw her on her bed. To smack her bottom. To shock her the hell out of it. But my maternal instincts wouldn’t allow it, and I was so committed to my original plan of out-calming her that I firmly sat her on her bed, naked, wet and pissed, and walked out, holding the door shut.
I immediately felt consoled by the protection of the wall between us. She could scream all she wanted and it would get her nowhere. Until she started punching the door like a teenage boy whose girlfriend has admitted to cheating – the glass door – and I envisioned her shattering it with the force of her will, dicing her porcelain skin. So I had to go back in. And when I did she said, “Mama, please hug me.”
My heart shriveled.
I held out my arms and she fell into them. She nuzzled her head into my neck. I held her closer to feel the exhales of concession. I picked her up using only the strength of my arms to appreciate every bit of her lifeless body. I carried her to her bed. Held her longer in the dark, eyes closed. Then placed her head on her pillow and covered her with layers of blankets.
She had been begging for help. Help detoxing from oppressive emotions she didn’t understand or know how to process.
“I love you so much, Nora. Do you know that?”
“I love you too,” she muffled through her thumb in her mouth.
“Do you know how much I love you?”
“To infinity and beyond.”
I kissed her forehead.
“Can I play with my book tomorrow?” she asked, worried.
“I don’t think you acted like a big girl tonight. Only big girls play with that book.”
“OK, mom.” She rolled on her side. “I understand.”
I kissed her forehead, walked out and shut the door gently behind me. The success and peace of allowing my daughter to be human settled into my bones. I gave her the room to fight herself, fight me, melt down, exhaust her mind and body in the safe and unconditionally loving company of her mama.
Lord, I beg you to grace me again with the strength of tonight when she is thirteen and tortured by hormones that drive her to slam the door in my face and call me a bitch. Remind me, God, of this thumb-sucking age, of the little girl inside her who’s asking for help, for the comfort of her mother’s hug.